As the country is on edge, constantly teetering a tight rope of progress, the direction of motion is anything but linear and forward. The upcoming election is constantly highlighting the areas of injustices that still exist, proving there are still daily, pressing issues that needs addressing. Luckily, The Curious Theatre isn’t afraid to get deep into the issues facing communities of color, and the current production of Pass Over is testimony to that.
Walking into the historic church on the corner of Acoma and 11th, home to The Curious Theatre, it’s easy to get lost in the beauty and significance that a historic place of worship constructed in 1890 carries. The things those walls must have heard and seen: stories of beginnings, songs of rejoicing, tales of religion, and the journey of man. The narratives that have been preached under a context undoubtedly twisted and contorted over time, every set of feet that have crossed this threshold carries either a hopeful faith or broken belief.
The stage is set high on a riser; a single lamp post sits stage left with a pair of tennis shoes laced and swinging from the pole. We immediately know where we are, the streets of a neighborhood many dare not stroll through. The air in the theatre carries a heavy weight, as once the playbill is opened, pages of religious sagas filled with stories of racial oppression and statistics which spotlight the undeniable tragedies the black community still faces can be found.
Black men are 7 times more likely to die unarmed than white men.
Black people are 4 times as likely to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with police.
Black and Latino students make up 60 percent of confined youth today.
Black Coloradans are 4 percent of the population and make up 18 percent of the prison population.
Once this story of #blacklivesmatter begins, the audience is buckled in and prepared to be immersed into the world of two black, homeless men who carry the dreams and hopes of a better life. Pass Over is about to be presented, and thoughts, feelings, emotions, and questions are about to wash over each and every set of eyes and ears.
Pass Over, written by Antoinette Nwandu, is complex and absorbing. Weaving together the biblical Exodus story and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago presented the world premiere of the piece and immediately sparked a national conversation about bias in the theater community. It is easy to see why.
Nwandu is purposeful in how she plays out the core conflict of hope versus oppression; an overt simplification of the nuanced struggle that black and brown people face. The n-word is placed within the text ad nauseum as a way to emphasize the significance of acknowledging the difference between black and white lives. Their journey is not the same; their fears are not the same, and their language is not the same as that of white folks.
From the beginning, the actors deliver us to a place of compassion, and we are rooting for the strength of the two main characters, Moses and Kitch. We learn that these men have seen the lives of their friends and loved ones lost, time and time again, by the hands of armed police officers. The reality of their fear is palpable, and a plan is devised to pass over, to cross the line and escape from the prison their life currently is.
Moses, played by Greg Geffrard, is serious. The urgency in Geffrard’s demeanor, his temper, the delivery of his lines, is not rushed; it’s imperative. Not for one more moment can Moses survive this hell on Earth, waiting for the day that his life too is stripped away too soon, and the audience holds out hope for him. Geffrard played this role as understudy from the inception of the play at Steppenwolf. He is comfortable in the skin of Moses, knows him in a way possibly even more than he knows himself, and yet, his delivery is anything but and tired, a fate many fall victim to after three years in the shoes of a man who lives an exhausting life of sheer survival.
Kitch, played by Gregory Fenner, is warm and funny. Fenner brings a lightness and naivety to a man who should be wary and jaded by his lot in life. Kitch has a faith in Moses, a wish that his friend can deliver them to a promised land, yet an acceptance that fate is unattainable. A dreamer, Fenner keeps the energy positive, and the way he sinks into the character feels bright, fresh, and hopeful.
We see the third and fourth characters of Pass Over enter during various moments of the Moses and Kitch plight, yet there is something alarmingly attention-worthy: the separate roles are played by the same man. Erik Sandvold is played both Ossifer and Mister, and while these two characters are vastly different in their interactions with the black men, they are both problematic white men. Offering a contrast, we see the intentional direction of the playwright in casting these two people by one man. Without giving much away, the delivery of Sandvold was exactly the mirror that us white folks need to be looking into when it comes to the harm we continually afflict on communities of color.
While the two brothers in the story come from different houses, they have grown up in the same streets, and, therefore, the same homes. This makes the story tumultuous, tiring, intense, engaging, shocking, and appalling, and we question in what ways we have helped and hurt our brothers and sisters in this society.
As the play ends after 90 minutes, with no intermission (“If Moses and Kitch cannot leave, neither can you, the program states”), the tension is so thick that there is a hesitation as to who will offer the first clap. However, as the audience absorbs all that happened and takes pause with their emotions, the nearly full house comes to a standing ovation as the three men take a bow.
One of the most poignant portions of what The Curious Theatre offers with this production, and every production they put on stage at the church, is a community conversation piece. The actors return to the stage with a production assistant and open a dialogue of thoughts, questions, perceptions, and interpretations.
The space was deemed “safe” because of the fact that while talking about racism and violence, and how white and black folks interact and engage, all participating in the conversation must assume best intentions. In listening to impressions and reflections, there was a bold sense of community and an understanding that this is a collective fight in order to heal and grow. This was a powerful and necessary way to decompress and to reassess the reactions and roles we all play in society.
Not only is Pass Over a must-see, The Curious Theatre company provides important programming in a space that feels like a haven of self-growth and social discovery.